Show excessive use of hard core drugs in films and you’ll be accused of glorifying them. Show fairly frequent use of milder drugs in films and you’ll be accused of suggesting that drug use is common place. Can directors possibly portray drug usage in film while equally showing the negative consequences? The answer appears to be yes.
Take for example the drug and sex heavy Wolf of Wall Street, pretty much three hours of Leo consuming every narcotic under the sun, enjoying an orgy on a plane, and just having a smashing time, right? Critics fell over themselves to label Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film: a glorification of the drug fuelled lives of stockbrokers. However, while we witness the highs (quite literally) of DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, we are also shown equally how his lifestyle leads to a dramatic fall from grace, divorce – twice – as well as the subsequent jail sentence he has to serve.
Critics love to point to the impressionable youth of today who may be influenced by Hollywood A-Listers like Leonardo DiCaprio devouring various drugs throughout the film. However, Scorsese’s satirising of the outrageous behaviour stockbrokers indulged in must be put into context with scenes of Jordan Belfort endangering his children and alienating his friends and family as he is ultimately left with nothing, give or take a few million dollars.
Another black comedy revolving around drugs, which couldn’t be more different, is Trainspotting. An extremely optimistic film considering it’s about Scottish heroin users. The film’s message couldn’t be any clearer than Ewan McGregor’s motivational monologue which opens and closes the narrative; “Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family”. Okay, McGregor in question does state later “who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin” but watching his desperate struggle to overcome the Class A drug clearly highlights the dangers of heroin. Without spoiling this gem of a film for those who need to watch it, it handles issues of overdosing, addiction, and withdrawal beautifully with an uplifting end that does explicitly show drugs as an obstacle needing to be tackled. Fingers crossed the sequel, which begins shooting this year, will be half as good in its handling of such difficult subject matters.
The film which is perhaps less tactful in its approach towards illegal drugs, to the extent where it might as well be called ‘drugs are bad, don’t do ‘em kids’, is Requiem for a Dream. While the film may be an extremely depressing watch, it clearly shows the negative deterioration that heroin has on the individual; both physically, psychologically, and in regards to quality of life. Grisly though it may be, Requiem stands head and shoulders above your average ‘drug film’ due to its thought-provoking parallel it draws between the lives of heroin users and a woman who overdoses on prescribed weight loss pills. The woman, who is then required to endure electroconvulsive therapy, and her story question the dangers of such drugs given to us by doctors and how different they really are to Class A drugs.
Wolf of Wall Street, Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream are typical, often at times bleak, films which explore the damaging effects of illegal drugs to differing extents. Another genre which examines drugs, in a fascinatingly different tone, are your ‘stoner movies’. In the universe of stoner comedies the main character is usually your average Joe who partakes in smoking a bit of weed occasionally and then finds themselves in a spot of bother, typically verging on the absurd or fantastical, over the course of the film. For example; take a look at the majority of Seth Rogen’s films where he is often typecast as the loveable loser who also happens to be a stoner at the weekends (Pineapple Express et al).
Perhaps the most famous stoner movie of them all is The Big Lebowski, a tale of a well-meaning yet extremely lazy marijuana user known as ‘the Dude’ who, typical of the stoner comedy genre, is swept up in a tale of kidnapping, mistaken identity and ludicrous characters. After all, he was just looking for his rug – which really did tie the room together. Lighter comedies, like the more recent Harold and Kumar films, provide a break from some of the preachier films about illegal drugs, but are potentially problematic in their acceptance of marijuana as a norm or suggesting it’s a way to escape everyday humdrum life. Considering this, there’s the age old argument: more people die from alcohol than weed. Perhaps in the future we could consider, to some extent, re-evaluating the use of other drugs like alcohol and tobacco in films.